From French electro-house to Frank Ocean: SebastiAn steps out

From French electro-house to Frank Ocean: SebastiAn steps out

On Thirst, his first record in eight years, the Ed Banger veteran relishes in the adventurous collaborative spirit that’s defined his quietly exceptional decade.

It’d be amiss to say that SebastiAn has returned: truth be told, he never really left. 

Still, the French electro-house DJ – a marquee name for legendary independent house label Ed Banger – has spent much of the last eight years in the shadows, chasing his long-awaited debut with another dose of antsy anticipation. Thirst, itself quenching nearly a decade of drought, arrives on November 8, the fourteen-track record replete with familiar palettes, fresh approaches and novel ideas. These new and dynamic takes are rooted in his absence, and to consider that eight-year break an inessential buffer is to detract from the journey, both personal and artistic, that informed his triumphant return. In taking the time to explore his own creativity, SebastiAn uncovered a love of collaboration that pushed his music to new ends, shaped by new places, new forms and new friendships. 

“Because I consider myself a producer, I had no specific deadlines in my head,” he tells me, pointing to the conventionally rock-n-roll cycles of friends and labelmates Justice. “I was just producing people and different artists, and suddenly, like after the Charlotte Gainsbourg album, after producing Kavinsky, when Frank Ocean called me, I did many things, and it's in the middle of all this that I found some new stuff to put out a new album.” 

It’s fitting, then, that SebastiAn’s career was founded on reinvention. The young Parisian built his reputation on remixes of tracks from Cut Copy, Uffie and Daft Punk, opportunities that put him in high demand throughout the late ‘00s, which he spent reworking singles from artists as far-flung as Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine, Sebastian Tellier and Klaxons. His 2006 Ross Ross Ross EP cemented him as a cornerstone of Ed Banger, an argument made with the glitch-ridden orchestral flair of the title track, the skittish experimentation of Head/Off and the rolling cadence of Walkman. 

As Justice rose to prominence with Cross and Uffie came to the fore with Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans, SebastiAn was toiling away on his own breakout debut. Total, branded with a striking and satirical sleeve, burst forth in mid-2011. Burst is the word, alright: Motor roared with the choke of a strained V12; Embody paired synth grandeur and garbled vocals in the moments before Nightcall; Arabest bounced with the kind of nu-disco energy soon channelled by Breakbot; Kindercut pushed a Sneaky Sound System remix into a wholly original composition, setting his DJ aptitude alongside his own production prowess; and Tetra spotlighted his propensity for flipping unorthodox sounds into compelling dance cuts. 

In many ways, Total seemed like SebastiAn’s true arrival: after years of impressive and increasingly bold remix work, he’d channelled his harsh electronic stylings into an aggressive, sample-heavy house record, delivering both a strong statement and a hit for Ed Banger. “I don't like to repeat myself too much in music, so I don't want to put an album just to put out to album,” he says, explaining the ensuing absence. “After all these years, I had something different to propose.”

Nobody is more surprised than SebastiAn himself. “I even remember the first day I arrived at the label,” he says of his 2005 induction into the now-legendary Ed Banger stable. “Pedro had just signed Justice, but it was really the start of the label.” Any nostalgia is undercut by a disbelief of the present: SebastiAn’s exceptional reality seems a far cry from those modest beginnings. “In my head, the life of a DJ was like one or two years. We just celebrated 16 years of the label. No, I never expected this. I didn't enter the label thinking that it was gonna be my life.”

As he casts his mind back, however, SebastiAn’s career seems all but inevitable. A disciple of ‘90s hip hop – “people like DJ Premier, or Timbaland, or even Mobb Deep” – the untethered DJ cycled through a slew of collaborators and outfits in the early 2000s, channelling his heroes’ ideas in new and exciting ways. “He had such an instinctive way to get the samples, to transform all of it into new things,” he says of DJ Premier, chief amongst his idols. “I transposed all the things I learned in hip-hop to electronic music.” 

Even in the moments when he saw his career as little more than fleeting stint, SebastiAn still persevered, devoted to the possibilities of the art itself. “I was always fascinated about the producers, almost more than the artists in general… the producers are really like the heart of what gave me the love of making music.”  It’s this belief, instilled almost twenty years ago, that reassured SebastiAn in the wake of Total. As a producer, free from the unwritten rules of conventional artistry, he stood on the verge of an unprecedented opportunity: as an established artist with a prolific six years under his belt, he was curiously free. The question wasn’t as much “when?” as “what?”

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“The thing I really like to do is collaborating with people,” he tells me, an answer he uncovered soon after Total. Though that record featured just two guests – M.I.A and Mayer Hawthorne – the latter was instrumental in instilling SebastiAn’s collaborative spirit. “I went to Amsterdam to record somebody and the woman who was supposed to sing – not for my album – broke her voice. I was alone in Amsterdam doing nothing, and I found him in the streets. I just recognized him like, ‘oh, you're Mayer Hawthorne!’ He told me, ‘yeah, let's let's have a beer!’ It was really like the perfect meeting, you know?” The track they cut that day, Love In Motion, would become one of his most revered singles, buoyed by Hawthorne’s delicate vocal and the contagious percussion. “We became close friends and we never stopped talking to each other.”

It’s a relationship not unlike the one he shares with Kavinsky. “He's one of my best friends,” he tells me excitedly, all at once hinting towards and refusing to say anything of a new project. Kavinsky’s OutRun, released a year and a half after Total, represented not only some of SebastiAn’s most intense collaboration, producing nine of the thirteen tracks, writing seven, and mixing the entire LP, but some of his most successful work, buoyed by the inclusion of Nightcall in 2011’s Drive. That was, at least, until he got caught up in one of the most anticipated records of the yet-young millennium. 

“I started the album of Charlotte Gainsbourg, I thought that I was gonna be like, ‘okay, I'm going to chill a little in Paris because she's French,’ and in fact, she moved to New York. Frank Ocean called me at the same time, he’d moved to London. So they crossed: I was producing an American in Europe, on a French girl in the US.” The observation, a nonchalant quip, betrays the enormity of the achievements, ones that even SebastiAn himself can’t help but appreciate.

“When we were working on the album, we definitely knew that we were doing something very big,” he says of Blonde, as close to an era-defining record as this decade has produced. “Frank Ocean just created what people call a 'classic,' like David Bowie did before, or Prince did,” he begins, words measured. “When I started to work with Frank Ocean – I am not the only one, there were many people on this album – I really felt that this guy, to be really honest, had something... he's a really, really special guy.”

SebastiAn’s technical contributions to Blonde – strings on Godspeed, drum and sample programming on White Ferrari – were eclipsed by his fleeting turn on Facebook Story, one of the record’s most oft-invoked and frequently discussed moments. That spoken word interlude, which finds a bemused SebastiAn regaling friends with an absurd story about love in the information age, came as a surprise to even him. “He never told me, he didn't tell me about that,” he says, amused, before assuring me it wasn’t an unwelcome ambush. “I knew he was recording a lot, even the conversations everywhere during the process of the album. We were waiting for him in the studio in London, I was talking with some other guys in the studio and we were laughing about how the girl left [me], or things like this. He just arrived when I was telling this story, and I don't know why he asked me more questions.” It’s a mystery he soon solved. 

He’s quick to let me know that, just because the story is his own, he can’t speak to the interludes intent. “I think, for him, maybe it was relating something about the new generation,” he surmises, “like that you can be fired from your own relationship just by not accepting your girlfriend on Facebook. It was kind of a strange story, but what can I say?” It’s clearly something he’s given a bit of thought, seeing as he tosses out another simpler explanation: “maybe he was he was laughing because of my accent... maybe he had love for my accent!”

Still, if SebastiAn was momentarily a meme, somebody should have let him know. “I'm just discovering [through] interviews that people are interested about this story,” he says, slightly flustered. “There were some people in New York who even tried to ask me to contact the girl again... it became kind of crazy, in a way.” The disarming power of virality aside, Blonde remains a watershed moment, not just for fans, but for the collaborators themselves. “I'll never live something like that again,” he muses, substantiating the myth that’s developed around the record. “[Frank is] truly like the last guy that I met that's that intense: not him, but the way he works. So weird, but like so in an intelligent way.”

Endless and Blonde arrived at the end of 2016, when SebastiAn was still in the studio with storied French musician Charlotte Gainsbourg. The Gainsbourg album – her fifth – found SebastiAn helming production outright, taking on a mantle previously extended to both Nigel Godrich and Beck. Yet another long-awaited return, Rest arrived in late 2017, an intimate meditation on the deaths of her father, Serge Gainsbourg, and half-sister, Kate Barry. If Blonde threw SebastiAn into a sea of collaborative energy, Rest left the musician marooned, demanding a level of investment comparable to that of a solo record. He wrote all but two of the tracks – those penned by Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk and Sir Paul McCartney – leaving Gainsbourg to craft her lyrics. 

Ring-A-Ring O’ Roses, the bilingual opener, unveiled a more spacious take on SebastiAn’s distinctive palette, whilst highlight Deadly Valentine fused familiar orchestral flair with a more subdued synthesizer base. The collaborative edge that SebastiAn so reveres rears its head in each and every instrumental, pushing his oft-aggressive sound into new pockets, ones more conducive to Gainsbourg’s ethereal melodies and soft-spoken moods. Her presence, a balm for SebastiAn’s ferocity, seamlessly underwrites his transition from electro-house stalwart to a proud pop producer.

His fondness for collaboration goes beyond musicians, however, and crosses mediums and modes themselves. It was Gainsbourg, the face of the fashion house, who introduced SebastiAn to the world of Saint Laurent, a culture to which he immediately endeared himself. “They came to me and asked me to make [music] for one show, and because it works, I do two, three and four, and finally I'm doing all the shows!” It’s as much a point of pride as a valuable creative exercise, one which pushes his capabilities and challenges his preconceptions in a unique and intriguing way. “You only have three days to make all the music,” he explains, “and it could be something like kind of a pain in the ass, but to me it’s the inverse… it's kind of pure, you know, you have no time to think, and I think the brain is kind of the enemy of music in this case.” It's a testament to his love of the process that he so emphatically tacks on an excited announcement: “they're going to put out an album of all this!” 

That relationship, now all but enshrined, isn’t entirely without precedent, recalling SebastiAn’s infrequent forays into film scores. “Soundtracks for movies are an incredible place when you can be allowed to invent a lot of things,” he explains, “of course you'll be obliged to represent some emotions, but at the same time, that's where you can invent… and do whatever you want to.” It’s a right he exercised for Mr. Oizo’s Steak and Romain Gavras’ Notre Jour Viendra and, more recently, Gavras’ The World Is Yours, itself a collaboration with Jamie xx. “Maybe people from the movies are thinking that I'm more into producing artists or making club music,” he says, his enthusiasm proof that it’s beyond his control. “I would love to do it more, I'm very open to it!”

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It’s this openness that facilitated his own return to the fore, prompted by the bevy of sudden and unconventional opportunities scattered across the decade. “My new album is just something like an affirmation,” he admits. “I wanted to really push in front the fact that I really did the thing that I enjoy, like producing for people.” The record – whilst notably slimmer than Total, fourteen tracks to twenty-two – features nine guests, a shift so strong it qualifies as a new approach altogether. “Even if it's really not the same process, working for people and working with people for yourself.” It’s an important distinction, particularly in the case of Gainsbourg, who reappears on album track Pleasant, this time guided by SebastiAn’s own overarching vision. Though Thirst features a long-overdue reunion with Mayer Hawthorne, it’s those with whom he’d yet to work, including Syd (of The Internet fame), Bakar, Allan Kingdom, Sevdaliza, Sunni Colin and Loota, that bring a new lease to SebastiAn’s sound. That’s without even mentioning Sparks, something he’s all too eager to do. 

“They were so gentle,” he says of the celebrated duo, recent collaborators and longtime heroes, posing the age-old “never meet your heroes” adage purely to refute it. “I’ve worked with many younger artists who are like huge egos,” he vents, catching himself just short of cynical. “I mean this is not something I'm spitting on, some young people have huge egos because, you know, they're starting their career and maybe insecure or what, and it's quite normal in a way.” It’s the true veterans – SebastiAn compares the meeting with the time he met Paul McCartney whilst working with Gainsbourg – that are freed from themselves, as “they have nothing to prove, so there is no ego problem… it's so easy to go straight to the music and straight to what is important.” 

If helming collaborations is the thing that SebastiAn really enjoys, the ensuing travel proved yet another bonus. “This album was made everywhere,” he explains, charting routes from Belgrade to Paris and London to New York, even stopping over in Japan for a fashion show. “I did most parts of this album in Airbnbs!” Again, the jetsetting proves an influence, colouring SebastiAn’s work in ways greater than merely the physical. “When you move to New York, you feel something totally different,” he tells me, tapping into a well-worn example that’s informed more than a handful of classics. “When you move to Japan, you're going to make a totally different song. For the track "Beograde," I was in Belgrade… you can feel this kind of music,” he says of the festive clubbing trackdriven by a “Slavic intensity” and steeped in his own heritage. 

It’s this sense of spatial identity that drives home the far-reaching influences on SebastiAn’s Thirst, a record defined by relationships: relationships with people, with place, with form and with himself. In coming to discover new truths and uncover new ideas, the producer has gone from genre hero to boundless creative, limited only by his own thirst for the unknown. It’s for all these reasons that Thirst is more than just a new record. It’s a travelogue, shaped by locales and locals; a scrapbook, stuffed with moments and memories; a Rolodex, filled with the names he’s come to know; and a memoir, traced along the wild and unpredictable contours of his life. 

There’s no telling how long we may be waiting for a third SebastiAn project, but there’s no denying his passion for the craft. The eight years that went into Thirst proved an irrevocable investment, one that shaped his entire creative process as much as it did the record. Five years, ten years, it’s all the same: as long as there’s music to be made, SebastiAn will be finding ways to get involved.

SebastiAn's new album, Thirst, is out November 8 via Caroline Australia / Because Music / Ed Banger Records.

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